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Dell exec: HP's 'Machine OS' is a 'laughable' idea

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Updated Dell thinks HP's bet-the-company approach on an entirely new open source operating system built around systems based on memristors and photonics is "laughable".

When asked at a meeting in San Francisco on Thursday about their thoughts on HP's just-announced, memristor-based "Machine OS", Dell software chief John Swainson and Dell head of research Jai Menon both expressed great skepticism at the idea.

"The notion you can achieve some kind of magical state by re-architecting an operating system is laughable on the face of it," said Swainson in response to a question by El Reg.

Before coming to Dell, Swainson sat on boards including Broadcom, was chief executive of CA Technologies from 2005 to 2009, and prior to that spent 26 years working at IBM.

"I have been through at least three operating- system changes," he recalled, "all of which promised far more than they actually delivered, and all three of which are actually still in existence."

HP's current plan is to begin developing an open source operating system named "The Machine OS" to take account of new technologies such as memristors (DIMMS due in 2016) and photonics and customized processors.

This software will be a "new operating system, all open source, from the ground up optimized for high memory systems," said HP's Martin Fink at the company's HP Discover conference yesterday.

It's an ambitious plan, and one that may not make the greatest amount of sense.

"Computer scientists love this stuff," Swainson said. "There have been many many attempts by people to do this – it's just not worth it. ... I think you can do a lot of that [memory-optimized tech] in device driver design and changes to the OS as opposed to saying you're going to write a whole new OS environment. Eighty or ninety per cent of that is going to be a complete waste of time."

El Reg is of the same opinion as Dell: for HP's "Machine OS" to mean anything, it has to fully interoperate with legacy software, just as Oracle's new in-memory database has full backwards compatibility with other environments. The alternative is lock-in to HP hardware via open software, and no one wants that.

Dell's approach to new memory technologies, by comparison, is to wait and see what next-generation memory comes along and then build specific software components to fit it.

"We are watching all of the movements in this next-generation of memory tech," Menon explained. "Unlike an HP or an IBM, we don't have a singular point of view that says the memristor is the right approach. We've been watching phase-change memory, resistive ram, personally I think there's at least two other techs ... phase change memory is going to be here sooner than what HP is banking on as an example."

Dell will bide its time and develop software when a clear winner emerges. "We are very closely watching what is happening, very excited by what can happen over the next three or four years, and thinking through very carefully with the software partners and server partners."

The company's approach is "the difference between shooting for the mid-market and shooting for the biggest, baddest thing at the top and hoping the trickle-down works," explained research chief Menon. "The trickle-down stuff doesn't usually work."

For HP, it desperately needs to create a new high-margin business, and one of the best ways of doing that is marrying hardware and software together. Dell, by comparison, has been taken private partly so the company can be rebuilt to deal with the modern technology world, which favors companies with lower margins working on technologies that don't need to be coupled together.

HP, like Oracle and IBM, has made a big bet that there's still room in the future for high-margin integrated hardware and software.

"We think [Machine OS is] an interesting, somewhat esoteric pursuit," Swainson said. However, Dell is most interested "cheapest, best, standards-based [tech] – all of this mundane stuff that is how computing gets done."

Update:

After this story was published HP got in touch with a statement from its senior vice president of global communications, Howard Clabo.

"I wasn't surprised to hear Dell’s head of R&D attack at our announcement of The Machine," Clabo wrote. "R&D has never been a priority at Dell and has probably ground to a halt completely since they took themselves private. We can understand his frustration at watching HP innovate while Dell stands still." ®

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